Privatizing History

Confederate and Union forces clash during a re-enactment of the Battle of Appomattox Station, Wednesday, April 8, 2015, as pa
Confederate and Union forces clash during a re-enactment of the Battle of Appomattox Station, Wednesday, April 8, 2015, as part of the 150th anniversary of the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia to Union forces at Appomattox Court House, in Appomattox, Va. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Not long ago, I asked a 16-year-old cousin if she liked studying history in high school. "I don't do history," she replied with a shrug.

She's not atypical. Many of our young people are ignorant of basic historical facts - as in, they don't know who won the Civil War. And they don't seem to care too much about that.

But I wonder: so what, if our kids know little about the past? Does history really matter anymore?

The answer isn't so obvious.

I just spent a week in Murcia, Spain, watching the beautiful processions of the Semana Santa. Here, history covers the city like the layers of a cake and Spaniards savor every layer, old and new. The same person who gives you a history lesson about Isabel and Ferdinand can also make a passionate argument why Django Unchained is a better film than 12 Years a Slave.

But a keen sense of history can also be a weapon, as Europeans know all too well. German grievances over the humiliations of Versailles gave the Nazi Party a loud drum to beat.

Young Americans don't have that problem. It's hard to have historical grievances if you don't know any history.

And the fact is, studying subjects like history doesn't usually lead to a big paycheck, at least compared to other majors.

I know this firsthand. A thousand years ago, I got a liberal arts and history degree from Yale. Learning about Augustan Rome was great. But corporations weren't exactly pounding on my door after graduation.

And that brings me back to my teenage cousin.

When she says she doesn't 'do history,' she's being far savvier than I was at her age. She knows what pays. Finance pays. Nursing pays. History doesn't pay.

But I still believe that history matters, if only because it's hard to know where you're going if you don't know where you've been. It just depends on what 'history' we're talking about.

Edward Hallett Carr defined history as "a continuous process of interaction between a historian and his facts, an unending dialogue between the present and the past."

So history isn't just facts. It's a story. It's what facts we choose and how we choose to interpret them at any moment.

A cynic might say that history is the fairy tale about the past we invent to justify what we want to do in the present.

For a long time, Americans enjoyed a shared story about their history. It was a triumphal vision about overcoming Indian savages, declaring that all men are created equal, freeing slaves, and making the world safe for democracy.

But in the 20th century, a new narrative emerged. Native Americans weren't Indian or savage. Only landowning white men were created equal. Freed slaves weren't really free. Parts of Latin America didn't want to be made safe.

In short, the common thread of our history has frayed. And how do we teach our kids history, if we can't agree on what to teach?

Reactionary cranks have exploited this national disagreement, believing they know history better than pinko pinheaded professional historians. And if they don't like what the pinheads say, they might just rewrite history themselves.

Of course, powerful people - from politicians to plutocrats - have always exploited history to gain power and make money.

But I think we face a new and more sinister challenge.

An academic view of history that at least tries to be objective is a bit like a public good. We don't all pay for it. But we all benefit from it. Because a basic grasp of history is, in my view, the foundation of critical thinking and democratic governance.

But if history is a public good, we're witnessing its privatization. The past has become a commodity that can be manufactured, packaged and sold to audiences eager to hear a good story that justifies their policies and their prejudices.

Legitimate history won't be censored. It will be there - somewhere - stuffed inside some old Google server, or molding away as dusty tomes in deserted and dilapidated libraries. We'll just choose not to learn it.

Maybe we'll become like the humans in Wall-E, wrapped in a warm cocoon of oblivious pleasure. That is, until a perfectly predictable environmental disaster rips the cocoon apart.